Monday, May 30, 2011

The Common Enemy: Racism and the Military

In context: The following blog is not intended to disrespect or dishonor Memorial Day. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I believe that as a nation we must honor those who have died by questioning systems of violence and working to create a more peaceful society and military, where less people have to die to defend our nation from the perceived and very real threats that we face.

On this Memorial Day, I was listening on NPR to a story of the first black woman to fly fighter helicopters. You can listen to the story here. It is a cool story in the sense of equality within the United States military. During the most previous military peacebuilding dialogue that I facilitated, this issue of racism in the military came up. One of the vets in the group said he felt really frustrated by society's stereotype of the military being racist. He said that the amount of friendships between black and white soliders was incredibly high and that a lot of guys (and gals) going into the military with racist tendencies were transformed because of their service. He said that when people are placed in such close surroundings and forced to defend each other at all odds, the sense of brotherhood (no mention of sisterhood?) and friendship is immeasurable.

A peacebuilding member in the dialogue, after listening carefully and affirming the story, explained their concern surrounding racial issues in the military. They explained their concern pertains to the "othering" when talking about the "enemy."

I agreed with this concern. I remember guys in my brother's unit used to call Jason the "haji lover". "Haji" is of course the term used for a Muslim taking the pilgrimage to Mecca. It has also been used as a discriminatory word for the indigenous peoples of the Arabic countries the US military occupies during times of war. Jason's fellow soldiers called him "haji lover" because he was always giving candy to kids and trying to engage in conversation with Afghan citizens. This "othering" of the enemy is nothing new within US military. We can trace it all the way back to the massacre of the Native Americans with such terms as: injun and redskin.

I do not believe that the military as an institution necessarily promotes this behavior. I imagine all soldiers going into a combat zone such as Iraq and Afghanistan receive some cultural sensitivity training. My hope is that as the military realizes the power behind counter violence tactics, they will spend more time training their soldiers on conflict resolution tactics. While "othering" the enemy may be a powerful combat tactic, it cripples our ability to effectively promote a non violent and peaceful society.

Happy Memorial's to a world where security and safety can coexist with compassion and tolerance.

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